While it wasn’t as graceful as “The Catch”, Ernest Jackson’s bobbled overtime reception was just as dramatic as Tony Gabriel’s career defining snag. More importantly, the end result was the same; an Ottawa Grey Cup championship. In a wild game that led R-Nation through a roller coaster of emotion, the Ottawa Redblacks hung on to beat the heavily favoured Calgary Stampeders 39-33 in overtime, pulling off one of the greatest upsets in CFL history. Here are all my thoughts on Ottawa’s first championship in four decades:
1) If it was his last game, QB Henry Burris made sure to put on a show that will have people talking for years. From the pre-game knee injury/tweak that fuelled speculation that he wouldn’t even suit up, to his 5 TD performance, Burris stole the spotlight from and outplayed his Calgary counterpart, the unanimous league MOP, Bo Levi Mitchell. From the opening drive Burris made it look easy, showing off his arm strength while orchestrating a Redblack attack that marched the ball up and down the field with ease. By going 35/46 (76%) for 461 yards, 3 TDs and 1 INT, Burris put an exclamation point on his Hall of Fame career. With his longest throw of the night only going for 38 yards, Burris controlled the tempo of the game by spreading the ball out to 8 different receivers and making quick, accurate throws that left Calgary’s defence off-balance. In addition to getting it done in the air, Burris also turned three short yardage QB sneaks into a first down and 2 TDs.
2) Although many will push the narrative that Burris will head into retirement, ending his career on a high note, I don’t buy it. Burris is an ultra competitive athlete who prides himself on playing and dominating a younger’s man game and if 2016 proved anything, it’s that when he’s healthy, Burris can clearly still compete with the best of them. Furthermore, when you take into account that Burris is signed for another year and with the Grey Cup coming to TD Place in 2017, I wouldn’t be surprised if Hank hangs around for another season. The elephant in the room is Trevor Harris, who will be paid as the starter next season. If both players can manage their egos and if Ottawa’s coaching staff lets them compete in training camp and rewards the more deserving player, there’s no reason the Redblacks can’t enjoy one more year of the best 1/2 QB punch in the league.
3) Hats off to offensive co-ordinator Jamie Elizondo for an incredible Grey Cup performance. Elizondo did a masterful job keeping Calgary off-balance, mixing up the run and pass (with 21 runs called vs 46 drop backs) as his unit racked up 525 yards of offence and 33 first downs. Elizondo also deserves credit for throwing a new wrinkle into Ottawa’s formations; a misdirection motion that caused confusion and hesitation among the Stampeder defenders. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Redblacks won the Grey Cup on 2nd down, moving the chains 22 times and averaging 11.4 yards per play on 2nd down. Another area in which the Redblacks excelled was in the red zone. After struggling to finish drives with touchdowns all season long, Elizondo’s unit went 5/5 in the red zone, coming up clutch when it mattered most.
4) A week after bulldozing his way through Edmonton’s defence to the tune of 157 yards, Canadian RB Kienan LaFrance got the nod to start for the Redblacks. Despite only averaging 3.8 yards per carry, LaFrance was an effective weapon for Ottawa, as he finished the night with 42 hard earned yards on the ground and another 31 in the air. LaFrance was spelled by Travon Van, who showed great burst while averaging 6 yards per carry but following a fumble, Van’s night rushing the ball was over.
5) As much as Burris had a game for the ages, none of it would have been possible without the incredible protection provided by his offensive line. Up against a Stampeder defence that generated a league high 52 sacks in the regular season, Ottawa’s offensive line limited the damage to a single sack on 46 drop backs. While OC Jamie Elizondo helped out his o-line by at times using FB/TE Patrick Lavoie as a blocker and having receivers chip off of defensive ends, the reality is Tommie Draheim, J’Michael Deane, Jon Gott, Nolan MacMillan and rookie Jason Lauzon-Séguin spent the majority of the night winning their one on one battles. While Bryan Chiu’s group struggled to open holes for the running game, Ottawa’s offensive line still found a way to get a good push and convert every short yardage situation they faced.
6) Given the season that he had, it’s only fitting that Ernest Jackson worked his way into Ottawa sports lore, joining Tony Gabriel as Ottawa receivers that led their teams to championships. Jackson spearheaded the Redblacks aerial attack (and also pounced on a crucial Lavoie fumble), hauling in 6 catches for 96 yards and one incredibly important touchdown. Much like it did all year, Ottawa’s receiving corps gave its opponent fits. If it wasn’t Greg Ellingson pulling down 7 catches for 85 yards, it was Brad Sinopoli making 6 catches for 94 yards or rookie Juron Criner, stepping up in the place of Chris Williams, catching 3 passes for 89 yards.
7) The CFL’s 2016 MOP had his worst game of the season, in large part do to excellent scheming from defensive co-ordinator Mark Nelson. For the first time all season, Bo Levi Mitchell looked human, hesitating at times, visibly frustrated and clearly not on the same page as his receivers. The Redblacks did a great job in getting after the QB, sacking Mitchell three times and blitzing enough to force early throws. That pressure in turn led to Mitchell’s only 3 INT game of the year, with two picks coming from Forrest Hightower. For a large part of 2016, Ottawa’s defensive unit was the team’s weak link, but in back to back weeks, the group came up huge when facing two of the league’s best quarterbacks. Much like they did against Edmonton’s John White, Ottawa’s defence effectively shut down Calgary’s running game, holding Jerome Messam, the CFL’s leading rusher, to just 35 yards on 8 carries. A large reason for Ottawa’s success at containing Messam was LB Damaso Munoz, who led all Redblacks with 11 tackles.
— CFL on TSN (@CFLonTSN) November 28, 2016
8) Speaking of tackles, no takedown was more important than Abdul Kanneh’s sack of Andrew Buckley on the 3 yard line with 40 seconds left. If the Stamps score there, the game doesn’t make it to overtime and Ottawa likely loses. As much as he’s been criticized this season for missing tackles, when it mattered most, Kanneh did enough to keep the Stampeders out of the end zone.
9) One of the most important moves GM Marcel Desjardins made in the off-season was hiring Bob Dyce to come in and coach Ottawa’s special teams. While the Redblacks failed to flip field position with a kick return, Dyce’s fingerprints were all over the coverage teams that held Roy Finch, one of the most dangerous returners in the CFL, in check. Shoutout to Antoine Pruneau, Tanner Doll, Serderius Byrant, Patrick Lavoie, Keelan Johnson, Andrew Marshall and Jake Harty for coming up with big special teams tackles. A particularly devastating hit by Harty and Marshall even generated a fumble in 2nd quarter.
10) As for the rest of Ottawa’s special teams, aside from a missed convert, kicker Ray Early was perfect on the night, nailing both field goals he attempted and averaging 40 yards per punt. After dropping the onside kick, nobody breathed a bigger sigh of relief than Brad Sinopoli when the Redblacks finally won the game.
— CFL on TSN (@CFLonTSN) November 28, 2016
11) While I’m sure they’ll shrug off any suggestions that pressure contributed to their loss, there’s no denying the Calgary Stampeders were under a ton of it. From sweeping the CFL awards, to pundits around the country claiming it was only a matter of how much they’d win by (not if), to the desire to win a ring in memory of fallen teammate Mylan Hicks, the tension around the Stamps was palpable, especially once they fell behind. With all of the burden of the expectation of winning falling solely on Calgary, the Redblacks were able to play loose and thrive in the underdog role.
12) In a season that was marred by officiating controversies, Andre Proulx and his crew deserve a warm round of applause for their work in the Grey Cup. There were no obvious blown calls (even if some in R-Nation were believe with Lemar Durant should have been ruled down), reviews were timely and with only 11 flags thrown, the zebras barely occupied the spotlight. The one thing they may have missed was a helmet to helmet hit on Khalil Paden that resulted in a fumble.
Vicious head shot which should result in an ejection. Set the tone. https://t.co/jONshmS1Qe
— Shea Emry (@sheaemry) November 28, 2016
13) BMO Field was a fantastic venue for the Grey Cup. Visually it looked incredible, packed with 33,421 loud fans, many of whom made the trek down the 401 from Ottawa to support their team. R-Nation was out in full force, and their cowbells, flags and face paint went a long way in creating a boisterous atmosphere.
— Drew Edwards (@scratchingpost) November 28, 2016
14) With the win, the Redblacks capture Ottawa’s 10th Grey Cup championship, and first since 1976. To say it’s been a lengthy wait for Ottawa’s long suffering fanbase would be a bit of an understatement. In the 40 years that have passed since Ottawa’s CFL team has hoisted a Grey Cup, R-Nation has endured decades of heartbreak, losing seasons, a revolving door of cheap/bad owners and the soul crushing pain of losing their franchise twice. Ottawa natives are accustomed to suffering when it comes to their football team, which is why the memory of players like Russ Jackson, Tony Gabriel and Gerry Organ are clung to like lifelines. Now, two generations later, R-Nation can add a new group of names to its pantheon of local sports legends. Names like Henry Burris, Ernest Jackson, Brad Sinopoli, Greg Ellingson, Abdul Kanneh, etc.
15) Congratulations to OSEG, team president Jeff Hunt, GM Marcel Desjardins and head coach Rick Campbell. There’s really no denying just how far the Redblacks organization has come in three short years. While R-Nation knows as well as any fanbase that success is a fickle thing, right now the city and its football team should bask in this championship glow.